Advent I Year C Jeremiah 33:14-16
29 November 2015 Luke 21:25-36
The Rev. Anne K Bartlett
In the name of the Holy One, who is and was and is to come. Amen.
I have to tell you right off the bat that this is a very disjointed sermon. It’s more like a stream-of-consciousness meditation on Advent words and images. So bear with me, and my hope is that at least one of the images will resonate with you.
Advent is my favorite season in the church year, but sometimes I find it hard to put into words exactly why I feel that way. There’s the anticipation of “something’s coming, something good!” that taps into the child who still lives within each of us, blended with the activity of preparation, of “getting ready” for the “something good” that is on its way.
And I love Advent is because it’s so countercultural. In my Episcopal tradition, we even wait until Christmas Eve to put up greenery in the church, and we know if we started singing Christmas carols, the Anglican Advent Police would be on our case. Frankly, it’s a relief to be here with you this year!
Artist and poet Jan Richardson reminds us that
[Advent] takes its substance and shape from those who have passed through these days before us, from generations who have waited in the dark and carried the light. Within the space of this season…there are many who are eager to open the door and welcome us in: a woman who dared to say yes to God [that would be Mary, of course; and this year our Advent candles are blue in her honor], a man who paid attention to his dreams [that would be Joseph], prophets with their words of an ancient hope [today we heard from Jeremiah, and there will be glorious words from Isaiah to come], a ragged man of the wilderness who came to prepare the way [John the Baptist, who was as countercultural as you can get!]: these and so many others wait to welcome us into this [season].
For me, at its best Advent is a season of active anticipation, but not of clamor. It seems to me that the spiritual practice of Advent is to seek to be quiet at our center no matter what else may be swirling about outside of us or in us, over which we have little or no control. I think of Mary in her heavy eighth month pregnancy, pondering so many impossible things in her heart.
And this year, I can’t help thinking of how it is for you awaiting Christina’s arrival. Talk about Already but Not Yet-ness!
The season of Advent is very similar to late stage pregnancy in its inward turning, the deepening of one’s interior life. Every first-time mother begins to prepare herself for the unknown challenges of labor and delivery, wondering how she’ll do, how will it be?, will everything be all right? Will the baby be healthy? Will she be a good-enough mother? While her husband is wondering: Will I be a good-enough father? Will I be able to protect this child? Together they wonder how this birth will change them, for they’ve been told – often enough! – their lives will never be the same again.
Whenever new life is about to appear on the scene, there is much “pondering in one’s heart.” Advent is the quintessential expectant season, paradoxically busy on the outside and an inward time of silent, secret waiting, hopes and fears held dear and close.
For many of us, Advent embraces our spiritual sense of longing. Come Lord Jesus! O Come, O Come, Emmanuel!” It is our own yearning that burns at the heart of this season, which is why Advent’s invitation comes not with a blast of trumpets but in a whisper, not in a blaze of Light but with one small candle called “hope,” flickering in great darkness.
Our First Sunday of Advent Scriptures speak to that deep longing to hold onto the holy hope that our times truly are in God’s hands, that the future that is coming at us over the horizon is ultimately a blessed fulfillment of God’s purposes for us and for all of creation.
The beautiful passage from the prophet Jeremiah was written for a people deep in a period of exile, refugees far from home and losing hope. Taken from the chapters in Jeremiah known as The Little Book of Comfort, the promise is that God’s will will be done on earth, that God’s people will again live in their holy city, Jerusalem; but this time there will be a radical new reality, because the rulers and the people will embody God’s fundamental principles of justice and righteousness. Jeremiah is our Advent prophet because he assures us that what is coming is of God. Therefore…therefore! we are to hold hope for ourselves and for our world.
I believe every Advent touches that place inside each of us that feels far from home, that part of us that feels like a stranger in a foreign land, weary and frightened for ourselves and for our children and our grandchildren and especially for the plight of the millions of refugees of our time who are seeking safety and the hope of some kind of new life far from home. We still yearn to believe in the future promised by God, however removed it seems from current realities.
Holy blessed Saint Augustine said that Christians are “prisoners of hope,” and so we are. We are prisoners of hope, captured by it. But let’s be clear about what our hope is, and what it is not. Our hope is not based on an overly optimistic view of human nature, nor of “progress” in its many forms. That kind of “sprightly optimism” ignores the ambiguity of the world, and fails to seriously consider the existence of evil; that kind of hope withers in the face of meaningless suffering and of true horror.
The kind of hope we are asked to hold is the sturdy, biblical hope that endures without taking refuge in either shallow optimism or in a weary, secular cynicism. Our task is to faithfully and passionately hold the hope we have come to trust: that our God is a God who both judges us and offers redemption in our present predicament, right where we are. That God in Jesus is both with us and coming to us. That there is more to come, both for God’s beautiful, broken earth and in a life and time beyond this one. We hold fast to our hope that the Holy One is still speaking, and has promised to heal us, help us, change us, transform us, and bring us Home, and that in the process we will be made more and more even into the likeness of Christ, whose Way we follow and in Whose face we dare to say we see God.
And then there’s this: we can’t talk about Advent without talking about how time tumbles in this season, folding in upon itself in these four weeks. Talk about holographic! Today we begin at the end of time, when time itself is about to be gathered up in God’s Kingdom fully come upon earth, the time when, as the tradition puts it, “Christ will come again.” That’s what we’re longing for, that’s what we’re waiting for: Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus! That is what is known as The Second Coming, and it obviously hasn’t happened yet. Next week we will begin to travel backwards in time, and by the end of Advent, we’ll be back at the beginning, with the First Coming of a baby born to a very young woman in a little backwater town far from her home when winter was hard upon the land, and the nights were long.
I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather talk about the baby than about the Second Coming. We progressive Christians get tongue-tied on this topic. It was C.S. Lewis, I think, who said that the reason some Christians focus so intensely on the Second Coming is because they are secretly disappointed in the First. We are so wary of sounding like our more conservative Christian brothers and sisters, who sometimes seem not to be able to talk about anything else. “It’s a Mystery,” we’ll say about the Second Coming, and pray we can leave it at that. Or we’ll trot out definitions of eschatology and how it differs from apocalyptic and try to stay in our heads instead of heading square into today’s gospel from Luke in which Jesus paints a picture of the day when the sun and moon and stars will act strangely, perhaps even fall from the sky, and the sea and the waves won’t stay where they are supposed to but will come upon the earth and cause great distress. There will be violence and chaos when the Son of Man returns in power and great glory.
Today’s gospel text is a word painting of an apocalyptic trauma-drama. But raise your heads,” we are told, because the Son of Man is coming back to finish the redemption of the world, every last bit and particle. So we are told to bravely wait in the midst of it all, for in the darkest part of the night there are strange and redeeming events afoot.
So here’s one last image for this First Sunday of Advent. Remember Vincent van Gogh’s painting Starry Night? And remember the hauntingly beautiful ballad Don McLean wrote – Starry Starry Night? That song was about van Gogh and his battle with mental illness, and about his artistic genius in painting the ordinary things of life in such a way that we see the gorgeous and irrepressible life force inside of haystacks and old weathered faces and blue irises.
Vincent van Gogh was the son of a Dutch pastor and for a time, he believed he had a vocation to be an evangelist to the poor. But when he preached, his passionate nature was perhaps over the top, too much to take in by ordinary mortals. So he “settled” on being an artist, and preaching through his paintings. He painted Starry Night in 1889 when he was in an asylum in St. Remy. I have not one doubt that Vincent was familiar with this morning’s gospel text from Luke. Listen to how one person describes the painting:
In an apocalyptic sky…[there are] swirling clouds in bold yellows and white on deep, dark blue and black. There is a bold and bright yellow moon and very bright stars…’rockets of burning yellow.’ In the background is a small town, with the church steeple as its most promising feature. In the foreground, a foreboding flame-like image connects earth and sky. Art historians take it to be a cypress tree, which in van Gogh’s time would have been associated with graveyards and mourning. The famous painting elicits differing reactions from those who admire it. Some see it as a daunting image of a frightening sky [creation out of control]; others as something bold and beautiful, others as a glimpse of God.
This, I know, has been a disjointed sermon, more like a stream-of-consciousness meditation on Advent words and images: blue candles for Mary; old Jeremiah reminding us that the days are surely coming and Jesus telling his disciples what to expect when heaven and earth begin to shake; time folding backwards into itself; Vincent van Gogh’s beautiful and disturbing painting; a young woman in her eighth month of pregnancy waiting for the labor pains of new life to begin; a new year of Christian discipleship for each of us and for this congregation — it’s all of a piece in this season of anticipation and longing and trusting that the future – ours and the whole world’s – is in God’s hands. That, and no less, is the hope we are to hold.
So we wait. We wait in the season of the “already-but-not-yet.” We wait for the One who is to come, who is the One who has already come of course, the One whom we meet in worship, the One who invites us to be alive now and to participate now in heaven’s reign, the One who has called us to follow, and here we are.
So, Come, Lord Jesus! O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.
We are waiting, and we are awake, and we don’t want to miss you.